Today marks the fifth-annual joint City-County employee observation of the life and legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., to be held at First Presbyterian Church downtown at noon today.
Each year, the event provides an opportunity for local government employees, elected officials, and the public to remember Dr. King and his fight for civil rights -- to bring the spirit and meaning of the day to light.
And each year, the employee-sponsored event's organizers select a keynote speaker to speak at the event. Last year, for instance, Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP president Michelle Cotton Laws, a 2009 Indy citizen award winner, was the speaker.
This year's selection is J.D. Greear, the pastor at Durham/RTP's The Summit Church. He's also a prolific blogger, holding court on a wide range of topics at his eponymous web site. Trained in neighboring Wake Forest's Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, Greear shares a denomination and profession with King.
But his selection has drawn fire from another Durham blogger, Pam Spaulding of the nationally-renowned Pam's House Blend LGBT-focused blog.
In an email to elected officials on Wednesday, Spaulding -- herself the great-granddaughter of NC Mutual founder C.C. Spaulding and granddaughter of the late NC Mutual president Asa Spaulding, himself active in national politics as a Presidential advisor and advocate for civil rights -- raised concerns over the appropriateness of Greear's selection, given statements he had made in the past on gay marriage.
Spaulding noted the City Council's unanimous vote last year to support the right of gays and lesbians to marry, and expressed concern that Greear's opposition to that right -- and the manner in which he communicated those feelings, via his web site and presumably elsewhere -- was not in keeping with the spirit (if not the documented letter) of King's legacy.
Last year's City-County celebration speaker, Laws, is herself a strong backer of gay rights, something not noted by Spaulding but picked up by the Indy in their citizen award given her last year.
As Spaulding frets in her email:
Dr. Martin Luther King never spoke on the issue of gay rights, but he never declared that any specific group of people should be denied basic civil rights in this country. His wife Coretta Scott King, who carried on his legacy, was a strong and unfailing supporter of LGBT rights, including the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
Pastor J.D. Greear has sadly represented the the opposite view, castigating the LGBT community as sinners and undeserving of civil rights in this arena. Moreover, he conflates the issue of religious and civil marriage.
In the email and her blog, Spaulding goes on to quote from statements made by Greear, including his comments about homosexuals, whom Greear states are welcome at The Summit but notes that is in the context of repentant sinners, like all Christians, seeking a path forward to redemption:
Doesn’t the church welcome sinners? The church is indeed a hospital for all types of sinners, but the first stage of healing is calling the disease a disease....
There are homosexuals who frequent our church. They are welcome. Their sins are no different than mine. But to join our church you have to agree to live under Christ’s authority. If you are willing to submit to Him, and to cry out to Him for help from your sin, you will join a group of us experiencing healing from our sin.
Spaulding also calls out for criticism Greear's position on gay marriage, calling out for special criticism a reductio ad absurdum argument Greear makes on the subject, asking whether if one could extend the short-lived approval in California of gay marriage through what he would call a 're-definition' of the institution, what would prevent such actions redefinition around polygamy or between those of majority age and a "consenting adolescent?"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I haven't had a chance to reach out to Greear, but it is worth noting that -- aside from his blog -- he himself takes a position on the separation of religion and politics in re his church's operation that's more explicitly stated than one might expect from the increasingly-politicized discussions on religion and gay rights... small comfort that that may be to Spaulding and to activists for gay marriage everywhere.
Actually, Greear's post on the subject of gay marriage makes for an interesting read -- in large part for his caveats, given several times, that it's his goal to stay away from political topics in his preaching at The Summit, even if he raises the questions on the blog:
My decision to stay out of politics, personally, has to do with my own personal calling as a pastor. My primary calling is to the Gospel, and I refuse to entangle myself in anything that keeps me from that one thing. The Gospel, and not a particular political persuasion, is the "main thing" at our church. We have both Republicans and Democrats on our staff and in our congregation. We have both McCainiacs and Obama-mamas in our congregation and on our stage each Sunday.
I will do my best to teach biblical principles about all areas of life, but applying them to various political situations I'll usually leave to you. You may disagree with me on how I apply a biblical worldview to situations--say, the war in Iraq, taxation, theories about climate change, etc. That is OK. I don't want to let that divide us. Plus, I know I might be wrong in my opinion on the war in Iraq or the proper role of the government in education.
That position actually drew heated opposition in the comments from a self-proclaimed graduate of the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University, who castigated Greear for not preaching the politics from a bully pulpit and for not excluding those who didn't fit the commenter's idea of religion:
It's easier to preach to the choir than take the ball to the hoop. It's easier to NOT get involved, and it's easier to hide behind a mantle of religiosity. If the Gospel is ALL that you are dedicated too, then you have already failed in your stated objective. Separate the men in the Bible who were not involved in government and see how many books of the Bible you have left. [...] When an abortion supporter, and an abortion opponent, can feel at home in the same church - something other than the Biblical Gospel is being preached.
As Greear responded to that commenter:
You also seemed to overlook the fact that I said that some Christians should be involved in politics full time, bringing the worldview into it. I just don't see it as the job of the local church, which is to be a Gospel community centered on the Gospel. I have plenty of experience with churches that were known for a political platform more than the Gospel. In, my experience, THEY are the ones who end up preaching only to the choir. I might be wrong in my opinion about global warming. I'm not wrong about the Gospel.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
For her part, Spaulding asked city and county officials to ask Greear to step aside from speaking -- something that might be difficult for what's an employee-organized event -- or for them to make an affirmation of their support of "civil equality" for LGBTs at the event.
To my guess, I'd assume Greear would steer widely clear of the whole matter in today's discussion, focusing instead on King's legacy in civil rights and his accomplishments around race.
To Spaulding, the discussion of civil rights can't happen in a vacuum that excludes discussion of gay rights.
It's a matter on which there's been some support from the voting body politic -- but also one which, as Spaulding noted in her remarks on the racially-split reaction from the audience that night at City Council, not everyone in the local black community supported.
At the end of the day, to some extent, the whole matter speaks as much about the divisions we still face in this country, not just over what we've accomplished for equality in realms like race where there's broad agreement, but in how we define what the boundaries of civil rights should be in the first place.
If there's a lesson I take away from the whole matter, it's that we sure could use a Dr. King more than ever these days.